Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Greatest

I recently finished two outstanding books, though their titles seem to indicate that one of the publishing houses is lying. Mark Bowden's The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958 and the Birth of the Modern NFL is the story of, well, just what it says. The two teams played the first overtime game in NFL history in the 1958 championship game and the contest has long been fawned over for helping the NFL become the fawned-over league it is today.

The other book is Richard Bradley's The Greatest Game: The Day that Bucky, Yaz, Reggie, Pudge, and Company Played the Most Memorable Game in Baseball's Most Intense Rivalry. Again, the subtitle provides ample evidence of what the book is about: the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees.

But if that's the greatest game, then how could the Colts-Giants game be the greatest...

It's a great book for baseball fans, even those who - like me - perhaps want to blame that particular game for being a primary reason every Red Sox-Yankees game played since 2000 has been broadcast on national TV, often against the will of the citizens in 48 states. Boston and New York love the rivalry, and TV execs will do everything in their power to make sure you love it too. So the next time those two teams are involved in another five-hour game on Sunday Night Baseball, put a bit of blame on that 1978 classic. But don't take it out on Bradley's book, which superbly tells the story of the game while recapping the countless subplots and backstories of that day.

There's actually a...great supply of sports books about greatest games. For example, there's Jim Reisler's The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees, October 13, 1960. The most shocking thing about that book - spoiler alert: The Pirates win it on a home run by Bill Mazeroski - is that the famous Game 7 that year took place on October 13. With the way baseball's postseason schedule has gone lately, there will someday be a book titled "The Most Incredible Game Ever: Pirates, Twins, December 9, 2014."

Also in baseball, is Jerry Izenberg's The Greatest Game Ever Played, which isn't about Game 7 in 1960 or the playoff game in 1978, but instead it chronicles the classic between the Mets and Astros in Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS.

There aren't as many greatest books in basketball, which has less to do with there not being enough candidates and more to do with publishers loving baseball books much more than basketball tomes. One of the candidates is Adam Lucas's The Best Game Ever: How Frank McGuire's '57 Tar Heels Beat Wilt and Revolutionized College Basketball

Most people are familiar with the games in the other greatest books, but Lucas's documents one that's not quite as well-known, though perhaps it should be (I shared a publisher and editor with Lucas and have exchanged some emails with him, but I'm not getting any share of his royalties for plugging his book).

So there are plenty of choices for books about great games and a neverending supply of games that might one day fit earn such a title. But I wonder, what's the worst game ever?

My first instinct is to say every NFL preseason game played, ever. But since preseason games don't count - although the hundreds of dollars on your credit card racked up while attending one do - and are utterly meaningless except when a star player gets hurt, I suppose they can't be considered.

In reality, there's probably only one decent candidate. Most of the books that focus on a greatest game do so because of the historical implications involved, not just because there may have been a fantastic finish sponsored by Alcoa. For example, there have been hundreds of football games that were better played than the 1958 title game, but it earned its admittedly subjective moniker because of what the NFL became in the ensuing years.

So the Worst Game Played has to be the 1950 tussle between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Fort Wayne Pistons, a game that set basketball back to a time before Naismith was even born. This was the infamous game Fort Wayne won 19-18 by using stall tactics, winning by a score that's unappealing to anyone who's ever played or watched basketball, with the possible exception of Dean Smith or Jeff Van Gundy. George Mikan led the Lakers with 15 points (and you thought Wilt dominated his team's offense the night he scored 100), but Fort Wayne - which stormed back from a 13-11 halftime deficit - hit a late shot to prevail.

The game helped lead to the creation of the shot clock, though it's a myth that the device was immediately created.

The shot clock didn't come until 1954, but author and NBA historian Stew Thornley wrote, "Nevertheless, it was reported that a “gentleman’s agreement” was reached between the teams to not resort to such tactics in the future." Thornley has an outstanding recap of the night here.

So if someone would write a book about that game, it'd have to borrow from its greatest cousins and have a subtitle that draws people in and completely describes everything that happened, perhaps something like, "The Worst Game Ever Played: Mikan, Pollard, Mikkelson, Kundla, a cold winter's night and a dynasty denied. How the November 22, 1950 game between Minneapolis and Fort Wayne nearly ruined the NBA but also helped save it."

No comments: